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All hands on deck
By Ann Coppola, News Reporter
Published: 06/30/2008

0626child According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), most Americans live in or near areas that have problems with youth gangs. There are an estimated 760,000 active youth members in 24,000 gangs throughout the United States. Since everyone, from parents to teachers to criminal justice professionals, directly interact with gang-involved youth, it is an issue that truly calls for an all-hands-on-deck approach to manage.

The 2008 National Youth Gang Symposium gets underway this week to answer that call. This is the fifth event launched by the collective efforts of the OJJDP, the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, and the National Youth Gang Center (NYGC). The event has been held once every three years since 1996. This year, a diverse audience of almost 1,200 people is descending upon Atlanta, Georgia for four days of more than 90 gang-related workshops.

“I think this is probably the most ambitious schedule we’ve had as far as the number and type and quality of workshops,” says NYGC director John Moore. “We cater this conference to an eclectic group that consists of everybody from law enforcement up through parents, teachers, prosecutors, and social service providers. When you get a group like that you have to have a lot of variety going on.”

That includes sessions on everything from gangster rap to serving gang-involved families to creative sentencing for gang members. The “Gangs on the Internet” workshop will examine how gang members use social networking sites to communicate. A session on Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, is exploring one of the nation’s most notorious and fastest growing gangs.

“This conference is one of the best around because it brings a lot of different people to the table,” says Victor Gonzalez, director of program services for the Houston Mayor’s Anti-Gang Office in Texas. Gonzalez will discuss ways to conduct gang outreach.

“We’re always going to have a gang presence here in Houston,” Gonzalez says. “I’ve watched it and have been working on just gangs for almost 20 years. You’ve really got to work at things that help the kids get their lives back in the mainstream. Here at the office we try to push a three-prong approach to youth gangs: prevention, intervention and suppression.”

Those three tactics are the basics behind OJJDP’s Comprehensive Gang Model. Houston was selected to pilot the model in 2000. The multi-layered approach stresses community involvement, especially from former gang members, and the development of education, training, and employment programs for gang-involved youth.

This model is one of many nationwide anti-gang programs and efforts being spotlighted. The Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, developed by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, is one effort that’s helping authorities select appropriate individuals for detention by separating youth not seriously delinquent from those that are.

“We’re duplicating this initiative in our area, and it’s been effective at lowering our detention population without creating a threat to public safety,” says Frank Hosch, deputy director of the Juvenile Services Division for the Ramsey County Community Corrections Department in St. Paul, Minnesota. Hosch is leading a probation round-table discussion.

“Working with kids and gangs, it’s a continuum,” says Hosch, who’s worked in juvenile corrections for 30 years. “There are kids that are very seriously involved with delinquent gang behavior, and for them we need to look at suppression and monitoring and accountability. But the detention alternatives initiative is about not utilizing detention for low risk offenders. Let’s reserve detention for the kids with serious delinquent behavior, who are seriously enmeshed in gangs.”

According to OJJDP, there are several risk factors that can lead youths to join a gang. Early delinquency or violence, low school achievement, peer pressure, and gang presence in the community can all predict membership. Youth members tend to be overwhelmingly male and predominantly minority. Not surprisingly, the more risk factors present in a youth’s background, the more likely he will join a gang.

“A lot of kids are in gangs for a specific reason and we need to work at filling that void in their lives,” Hosch adds.

Much youth gang data exists, including why kids become involved with gangs, how long they stay, and what delinquent activities they participate in as gang members. The NYGC has been collecting such data annually for the last ten years through its National Youth Gang Survey.

“I think we probably know more now about what draws young people into gangs and what to do and what not to do than we ever have before,” says Candice Kance, Chief Operating Officer of the Chicago Project for Violence Protection of the University of Illinois. Kane is presenting her work with CeaseFire, a community mobilization program trying to prevent shootings and killings, which disproportionately involve youth gang members.

“We’re certainly making inroads, but there’s still a lot of work to be done as far as bridging the gap between research and practice,” she adds.

The symposium is counting on its eclectic audience, along with its diverse pool of speakers and presenters, to help bridge that gap. There are a few celebrity speakers, such as keynote speaker, U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey, and baseball great Cal Ripken, who has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Boys & Girls Clubs so disadvantaged youth can play baseball in their communities.

The symposium also brings together those who have made a career of serving gang-affected communities with individuals who know their communities have a problem but don’t know what to do about it. That variety, its sponsors hope, will demonstrate how a wide range of individuals are needed to make a significant impact on youth gang activity.

“This is not just a police problem, it’s a community problem that requires collective kinds of efforts,” Moore says. “When this event brings all these folks together, everyone looks around and leaves with a better appreciation for the need for that kind of collaboration.”

Related Resources:

OJJDP’s Comprehensive Gang Model

More on Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative

More on CeaseFire

Learn about MS-13


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